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Trail Town Spotlight: The Outdoor Guide to Amherstburg, Ontario

After a brief hiatus, our #TrailTownSpotlight series is back! This edition crosses the border to explore the outdoor gems of Amherstburg, Ontario - possibly the single most historic recreational trail town in the Great Lakes region.

All roads lead to Amherstburg, Ontario.


Or at least that's our lingering sentiment after researching the Detroit region's outdoors over the past several months. Allow us to explain.


Our first encounter with colonial Amherstburg dates back to our article on the Battles of Frenchtown - known predominately in the U.S. as the Battle of River Raisin - during the War of 1812. The decisive British, Canadian, and Native American forces that routed the outnumbered Americans at Frenchtown (now Monroe, Michigan) had assembled at Fort Malden in Amherstburg, crossed the frozen Detroit River into Michigan, and later returned across the river on foot with hundreds of captured American soldiers during the infamous blood march now known as the "River Raisin Massacre."


In an unintended twist of fate, Amherstburg popped back up on the Expedition Detroit radar just a few weeks later. In honor of Black History Month, we published a two-part series on the Underground Railroad and its lasting legacy within the Detroit region. To our surprise, the long, clandestine trails of the railroad did not typically end in Windsor. Amherstburg, and specifically Fort Malden again, provided the final destination for tens of thousands of fugitive African Americans. While Detroit had the Underground Railroad codename of "Midnight," Amherstburg was referenced symbolically as "Dawn" - the light at the end of our history's most dark and dangerous trail.


Beyond history, our research into southwestern Ontario's most popular trails (future article spoiler) led to uncovering 5 "Top Trails" within cycling distance of Downtown Amherstburg. Add in a healthy mix of Essex Region Conservation Areas, regional parks, and a dramatic coastline along the Detroit River and Lake Erie - well, let's just say that it didn't take much convincing for us to grab our hiking boots, passport, and hit the road.


Here's our point: Amherstburg should be on the bucket list of every traveler to the Detroit region. A must-visit for outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, street art fans, and foodies alike.


It's our pleasure to formally introduce this quintessential Great Lakes colonial destination now.

MEET AMHERSTBURG

Located just under 30 kilometers (~18 miles) south of Windsor, the Town of Amherstburg has maintained a constant and historically-imposing presence on the eastern banks of the Detroit River since 1796. Originally settled by the Ojibe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples, the British established the first European presence in the area at the turn of the 19th century with the construction of "Fort Amherstburg" in the colonial settlement of "Malden." The fort and its surrounding town proved to be of utmost importance to the control of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812, despite switching names in the official records of the British Canadian Government by the 1830s.


As the 19th century bled into the 20th and 21st, Amherstburg continued to maintain - and expand - its historical, economic, and national significance. Coinciding with Amherstburg's boom as a shipping and logging port during the 1850s, the town's docks converted into the chief importer of freedom for its hundreds of newly-minted African-Canadian citizens that had successfully stowed away from Detroit. The legacy of Amherstburg's role as the "great landing place" in the Underground Railroad continues today with the preservation of the abolitionist-founded Amherstburg First Baptist Church, Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. The industrial wheels of the 20th century also incorporated Amherstburg as a plastic manufacturing and whiskey distilling hub - especially during the "Prohibition Era" in the United States.


The Amherstburg of today maintains its storied history alongside a vibrant and dynamic modern community. Impressive forts and monuments coincide effortlessly with chic cafes, manicured promenades, incredible street art, boutique shops, and year-round festivals. And yes, the town also provides an ideal gateway to several of the Detroit region's most historic, accessible, and beautiful outdoor destinations.

CAN'T MISS EXPERIENCE: Fort Malden National Historic Site

While Amherstburg is arguably the most historic destination in Ontario, Fort Malden is definitely the most historic destination within Amherstburg. The fort's foundations date back to the initial settlement of the town in 1796, and during the next two centuries served as a military barracks, strategically-vital naval base, outpost to crush the Rebellions of 1837, first nations conference host, and even a "lunatic asylum" (as dubbed by the government of Canada West in 1859).


In 1921, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada formally recognized the fort and its historic grounds as holding "historical importance" and therefore worthy of governmental preservation. Parks Canada has since included substantial additions to the protected area comprising the historic site, including a restored 1819 barracks, remnants of the 1840-period earthworks barriers, and two additional preserved buildings. A visit to Fort Malden includes opportunities for guided tours along an interpretive trail, scenic lookouts, youth programs, dog walking, and picnicking along the banks of the Detroit River.

BEST FOR THE FAMILY: Navy Yard Park

Just down the shoreline from Fort Malden, the remainder of Amherstburg's colonial and maritime history waits for your discovery at Navy Yard Park. The park's previous life as a coastal stronghold is impossible to ignore, as evidenced by the cannons, plaques, and dramatic naval statues that define the 10.5-acre park. The park's modern design actually mirrors the original Navy Yard from 1796, which was responsible for the construction of several war ships that fought in the War of 1812. Beyond its impressive history, Navy Yard Park is also celebrated for its award-winning gardens, mature trees, walkways, and idyllic river bank.

The 0.8 mile loop trail depicted above guides visitors through the park in a comprehensive yet succinct route. This trail is popular for recreationists of all ages and interests - a local favorite for birding, fishing, and paddle sports, as well as some solitude during quieter times of day and less busy times of the year. The trail is open year-round and is beautiful to visit anytime. Dogs are also welcomed, but must be on a 6 foot (2 meter) leash.

OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Holiday Beach Conservation Area

Alright, describing Holiday Beach Conservation Area as "Off the Beaten Path" may prove to be decisive for our readers. If you're an American, then you're most likely confused as to why I've started with this disclaimer. If you're Canadian, then chances are that you've visited Holiday Beach countless times - especially when Point Pelee National Park seemed either just a little too outside of your travel plans or overrun by tourists.


For our readers who haven't visited Holiday Beach, the protected Essex Region Conservation Area is located just over 13 kilometers (~8 miles) southeast of Downtown Amherstburg. The park is widely viewed as a pristine destination for world-class kayaking, fishing, wildlife photographing, bird-watching, hiking, cycling, cross-country skiing, and even hunting. Bird-watching from the park's observation tower is especially popular in the park; in 2000, Holiday Beach received international recognition as an "Important Bird Area" by BirdLife International. This designation largely resulted from the park's massive concentration of raptors, prompting the annual "Festival of Hawks" that coincides with the migration of thousands of hawks, vultures, eagles, falcons and other birds of prey across the Detroit River and south for the winter.

The Holiday Beach Long Loop Trail leads hikers, trail runners, snowshoers, and dog walkers through the heart of the park, with the trail's pinnacle landmark comprising of the park's three-story observation tower. The route oscillates between marked paved roads, board walks, and forest trails. The observation tower will come into view just before the 1 mile marker (don't get too close to the large tree on the right side of the trail the tower - raccoons are known to burrow inside).


From the tower, continue down the shaded trail until you reach roughly the 1.2 mile marker. We strongly encourage you to break off from the trail at this point and head due south towards the Lake Erie coastline. The views are magnificent, the sandy beach is perfect for a lunch break, and your trail dog will be convinced that you've stumbled upon paradise. You will pick up the trail again within 0.1 of a mile and continue inland through expansive fields, mature forest, and the marshlands that are native to this corner of Ontario.

MORNING FUEL: Downtown Espresso Cafe

When we at Expedition Detroit think of an ideal coffee shop, we imagine three specific ingredients: amazing coffee, delicious pastries, and an ideal location. The Downtown Espresso Cafe has all three elements in spades - especially when it comes to the cafe's location (trust us, not at all a knock on the coffee and baked goods). The Cafe's friendly "hometown diner" atmosphere invites you to sit back and enjoy your traditional espresso, latte, or cappuccino as you watch Downtown Amherstburg wake up from the Cafe's panoramic windows. Once caffeinated, the best attractions of downtown are mere steps away.

POST-TRAIL WATERING HOLE: Lord Amherst Pub and Wine Lounge

If you find yourself traveling north into town after a day spent exploring the parks, marshlands, and beaches of southern Ontario, then you won't need to travel very far up Dalhousie Street to find your post-trail beer. The famous Lord Amherst Pub and Wine Lounge awaits your arrival at the southern entry to the heart of Downtown Amherstburg, complete with its upscale British pub dishes served for lunch and dinner. Lord Amherst's direct access to Navy Yard Park across Dalhousie also provides the perfect avenue for a post-poutine stroll.

 

This article only scratches the surface on all that Amherstburg has to offer for its residents and visitors. For more information on local businesses, organizations, and outdoor recreation opportunities, be sure to check out fantastic local information outlets like Visit Amherstburg and the Essex Region Conservation Authority.


Do you live in or around Amherstburg? Have any additional suggestions for our community's attention? Please feel free to suggest any extra experiences, retailers, or outdoor events in the comments below!



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